As Tim Howarth steps down as CEO of United World Schools, we asked Tim to share his leadership lessons and key learnings from ten years with UWS, and a journey that has seen over 45,000 children given the opportunity to go to school.

  1.       Believe.

If there is one overriding feature that has driven UWS’ success in the last ten years it is an unwavering, complete and utter belief in the mission; and linking up with partners and colleagues who share total commitment to the power of education to transform lives. Reflecting recently with a number of our donors, the belief in the UWS mission is universal, and perhaps the biggest driver of our success.


  1.       Know who you are and why you are here.

Ever since the first UWS Community School in the remote village of Kong Nork, Cambodia was established in 2009, we’ve been clear on what we are trying to do. We’ve been prepared to innovate of course, but rarely strayed too far away from our core purpose and focus. We’ve kept it simple. As we’ve grown, we’ve also learnt the importance of saying ‘no’ to well-intended suggestions that ultimately distract the organisation from its core purpose. On reflection, we should have had the confidence to, politely, say ‘no’ earlier in our journey – this is all part of the learning experience.


  1.       Goals: make them audacious, big and bold.

When we launched our ‘transforming 50,000 lives’ campaign in 2014, the ambition and scale captured attention – and we successfully gained the investment and gathered momentum as a result. People either thought we were bonkers, or that we had a great idea… and wanted to work out which one it was! Fortunately, they concluded it was the latter, and we had £1m of unrestricted funding pledged to develop the organisation. We’ve never looked back.  


  1.       Connect and invest in people.

Perhaps the organisation’s biggest strength are the partnerships that have been formed, based on mutually beneficial, trusted relationships. At our best, we’ve made it more than a great cause – we’ve made people part of a family. Where we’ve stumbled, failing to properly invest in the right people, in the right way, has almost always been part of the root cause.


  1.       Punch above your weight.

We’ve often acted bigger than we are (and then grown into the space created). A good example is when we secured our first major, multi-million dollar grant from one of our partners in 2016. We were tiny in comparison to many of their other partners, but we had the appetite to grow and develop. This grant was a game changer for us, and we have subsequently become a peer organisation to the very best in our sector.


  1.       Think like a system, and act like an entrepreneur.

Bold, audacious plans for growth and scale were essential for UWS’ success… but meaningless without a plan to deliver them. At our best, we’ve planned in a very business-like and systematic manner; when we’ve moved to action, we’ve changed leadership ‘gear’ and intentionally executed the plan as entrepreneurs – being dynamic, problem-solving and rapidly adapting to change. By doing so, we’ve scaled with ‘glocal’ behaviours: an organisation that seeks to balance appropriate country autonomy with global consistency. Our CV19 response – as well as keeping education going through temporary school closures in 2020/21, and reopening successfully recently – is perhaps one of the best examples of this.


  1.       Know your numbers.

A budget isn’t just a budget, it’s a plan. It costs just over a dollar per week to educate a child in a UWS Community School – this represents a terrific value and is very compelling for philanthropists. We’ve played to our strength here over the years, not just with financial transparency (which is essential), but also with clear financials giving confidence in who is running the organisation. And we’ve encouraged internal colleagues to deeply engage with our numbers – and therefore own our cost-conscious, high-impact plans.


  1.       Talk it up.

We can all choose our attitude. We’ve chosen positivity. UWS operate in difficult places – positivity has been essential to keep enthusiasm, a can-do approach and optimism. Positivity has also been infectious, motivating teams, building and sustaining organisation momentum.   


  1.       Do something slightly better each day.

We’ve had the opportunity to engage with some extraordinarily brilliant people on our journey. The opportunities to listen and learn have been significant, and every day as CEO, I’ve aimed to improve something. This has also empowered stakeholders around the world to continue to lean in - feeling part of the journey, and able to contribute to it.   


  1.   Make someone’s day.

We’re in the people business. It’s a challenging and complicated business – and also deeply rewarding. Yet in our relentless pursuit of the ‘next’ goal or objectives, we perhaps haven’t always taken the time to celebrate and recognise success on route. The learning? Taking an opportunity to make someone’s day today, sets up even more success tomorrow.